29 January 2012
It’s been a good seventeen years since I last visited Maputo.
On that occasion, shortly after the end of fifteen years of crippling civil war, the capital city was a reflection of the state of the rest of Mozambique: Tired, broken and dysfunctional. Rubbish lay in great heaps on street corners, cars rotted where they stood, shops with empty shelves skulked in rundown buildings, power- and water supply was intermittent, and people had taken to surviving rather than living.
This stood in stark contrast to the old Lourenco Marques I’d known as a youngster. Gone were the window displays of stores that were fashionable at the time, vibey sidewalk restaurants (something unknown in SA then), the popular movie theaters, posters advertising bullfights, manicured subtropical gardens and the grand colonial air of it all. Names of streets had been changed, as had the culture of order. LM had become Maputo; a rundown part of Africa rather than a petal of Portugal. All that was left of the old days were the language and the ornate, well-built architecture of the Portuguese.
Yes, Maputo was a sad place seventeen years ago. But what is it like now?
Well, to be fair, I didn’t spend much time there during my visit this past weekend. Simply because I don’t like cities. But what I did notice during my brief stay was that Maputo’s got its breath back. It bustles almost chaotically with footfolk, SUV’s, trucks, tuk-tuks and chapas minibus taxis. There’s life and laughter on its streets and fresh things are happening. Banks, hotels and insurance houses have taken the lead with modern buildings, a few retail chains have moved in and construction cranes are waving their lattice wands over projects. I don’t know if the old bullring still stands, but there’s now a huge new sports stadium where the All-Africa Games were held last year (keeping up with the Jones’s?), as well as a new airport terminal. Shouting loudest of all, inevitably, are the cellphone companies, especially Vodacom, who seem to have taken it upon themselves to paint Mozambique red.
All these however, appear like glaring highlights against a grey backdrop of poverty and squalor. Those modern buildings still face derelict ones, whilst the bright new signs cast their light on muddy pools and scattered litter. Not far away are the slums where the majority of the city’s inhabitants live. Even the Marginal, the scenic seafront drive leading to the Costa do Sol that should be the city’s foremost tourism treasure, is lined with potholes, litter and decay.
Two extremes. Do they leave the visitor lost in the ravine between them? They may appear to, but I’d rather like to think they’re symbolic of the chequered nature of a pragmatic, vibrant Africa. The place is real; Botox, warts and all. It once tried to be a little bit of Portugal, it once tried to be Communist, it once was down and out. Now crazy, contradictory Maputo is simply being its diverse, living self.